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Three Reflections: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:1

Three Reflections: Ethics of the Fathers, 3:1

How to make sure you stay on the right path.


Akavya ben Mehalalel said: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of sin. Know from where you have come, to where you are heading, and before Whom you will give justification and accounting. From where have you come -- from a putrid drop; to where are you heading -- to a place of dust, worms and maggots; and before Whom will you give justification and accounting -- before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, may He be blessed. Ethics of the Fathers, 3:1

A Russian man walking along the streets of Moscow one morning witnessed the following scene: a worker with a shovel dug a hole in the stretch of earth bordering the boulevard, after which the second man took his shovel and filled in the hole.

The man witnessing this scene ran up to the two men and cried, "Comrades, this is madness! What in the world are you doing?"

The first worker calmly regarded the stranger and explained. "Look here. Usually I dig a hole, Ivan plants a tree in the hole, and Misha fills in the earth around the tree. But today Ivan is sick. So what do you suggest? That just because Ivan isn't here today, Misha and I shouldn't do our work?"

How often do we find ourselves so caught up in the business of the moment that we forget the reason for what we are doing? Occasionally, in our zeal to get a job done, we may even hinder the progress of our long-term objectives as we focus too narrowly on short-term goals.

Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of sin

Few people make a conscious and determined decision to abandon good for wicked behavior. Rather, it is through stress, carelessness, or lack of foresight, that we choose the easy or expedient path, only to recognize later, and often too late, the error of our ways.

What steps can we take to minimize the chance of embarking upon the wrong paths before we encounter those moments of tension and temptation? That is the question the Akavya ben Mehalalel comes to answer.

Know from where you have come, to where you are heading, and before Whom you will give justification and accounting

Two men traveling through a dense forest have lost their sense of direction. In an effort to regain their bearings, one of the pair began climbing up to a knoll above the tree line.

"But we never intended to climb this hill," protested his companion, "so this has to be the wrong way."

"Perhaps so," replied the first. "But if we can get up high enough to see the point from which we came, then we will be able to deduce the direction in which we should go."

Without knowledge of where we are headed, we will never get there.

Often, we lose track of where we are going because we forget where we began. Just as in geometry both a beginning point and an end point are required to form a line, so too we cannot properly evaluate our destination in life without an awareness of our point of departure. Conversely, although a knowledge of our beginnings may help us orient ourselves, it only helps us determine our direction when our destination is known. Without knowledge of where we are headed, we will never get there.

Finally, we need to know why we are traveling. What is the point of our journey? Why did we set out in the first place? Without an answer to that question, we have no motivation to carry on to the very end.

From where have you come -- from a putrid drop

Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein told of a sad little lizard who bragged that he was a brontosaurus on his mother's side. People who inflate their importance by pointing to an illustrious past often have nothing to be proud of within themselves.

We are all guilty of this, given human beings' natural predisposition toward arrogance. We imagine ourselves as the crowning glory of all the generations that preceded us, occupying our rightful place at the pinnacle of creation. In our arrogance, we convince ourselves that whatever we may desire is, by definition, right and good.

But what if we look back not to our noble forebears but to our biological beginnings? Every one of us can trace his origins back to a few milliliters of seminal fluid and to a single spermatozoon. And what if that particular spermatozoon had been edged out by another in the fertilization of our mother's ovum? Quite simply, we would not exist, and our place in the world would be occupied by another.

Is this the past on which we found our delusions of supremacy and grandeur? Is this the source of the arrogance that convinces us that we can abrogate Divine Law? Consider your origins, says our Mishna, contemplate your own insignificance if not for the Divine Hand that brought you into being, and you will think twice before you act in contravention of the Creator upon whose existence your own existence depends.

to where are you heading -- to a place of dust, worms and maggots

The past is not the only source of human arrogance. The present and the future confirm our suspicion that we stand atop the pyramid of creation. We are superior to all other creatures. We control the fate of the world. We are masters of our own destiny. In our arrogance, we easily rationalize and justify all that we wish to do.

But what is this destiny over which we are the masters? Paupers and kings, nobles and peasants alike end up in the same place, interred beneath the earth, food for worms and maggots. Whatever we hope to accomplish or believe we have accomplished in this world, the passage of time will leave little for us to be remembered by, and the physical bodies that once gave us power upon the earth will testify to how fleeting and how trivial are all things physical.

and before Whom will you give justification and accounting -- before the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, may He be blessed

If our physical past holds nothing but seeming random evolution from both primordial and biological slime, and if our physical future holds no hope but decay and oblivion, then what does it matter how we live our lives?

Indeed, life does have meaning and purpose, but only if we look beyond the physical and transcend the limitation of our senses to recognize the intricate Plan of Creation, a plan that placed us here in this temporal existence for the purpose of earning our reward in the World to Come. To earn that reward, however, we must win the eternal battle of the calling of our souls and our conscience against the temptation of our desires and our inclinations.

By remembering the futility of all physical reward, by recognizing the eternal consequences of spiritual transcendence, we can conquer the ego and the impulse that thrive upon the physical so that we will merit the incalculable reward that is the purpose of all Creation. When we come to know that the accounting we give for the way we live our lives will determine our everlasting fate, only then will we be armed to defend ourselves against the seductive callings of our physical existence, an existence that seeks all our attention for the few brief moments of our transit through this world before abandoning us to an eternity of nothingness.

February 4, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Dale Stone, February 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Astute compliments

When we greet each other and wish Shalom, we too often limit our inquiry to "How are you?" Rabbi Goldson's observations, let us also inquire, "Why are you." Excellent, Dale Stone

(5) Andy, February 8, 2006 12:00 AM

clarification and thanks to merlock

merlock, not harsh and very well said. i think that it mirrors what our sages discuss in talmud brachot that we [our souls]are being effected in the next worlds as a result of the CONTINUAL REPURCUSSIONS of our actions while we were earlier comment may have been poorly written."i am not denying a soul.i wondered how one with doubts or of limited/no learning could utilize this teaching as much of humanity fall into that category.
the idea that we are building our eternity and that it will feel very familiar[no 70 virgins with the fans feeding us grapes in the garden]seems less doubtful.

(4) Anonymous, February 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Do it for the sake of heaven..

Our Rabii, quoting another famous Rabbi of past... it might have been the Chaim Chofetz... even when good deeds seem useless... just do them anyway... for the sake of Heaven...

I like this quote very much... it seems to reverberate...

(3) Andy, February 6, 2006 12:00 AM

guide to keeping the faithful on track

This is great for believing Orthodox Jews and probably works for others of faith who believe that they will appear before their Creator to give an accounting and that the Creator revealed how we are to behave and that we will be judged accordingly. How does one with less faith utilize this teaching?

(2) Merlock, February 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Reply to Andy

Well---and I don't want this to sound harsh, sorry if it does---but you do lose something of the lesson if you take out God, since it is a religious teaching. However, I suppose the best secular equivalent to the Afterlife would be your reputation and impact on Earth. Assuming a lack of a soul, it is the only form of you that exists, so---even if you believe in a soul---you should make sure that as your deeds continue to echo down the halls of time, they're melodious and not sour. God bless!

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